A New Jersey town paralyzed by terror

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Outside Journal Square station, Jersey City, NJ, on December 10, 2019. Photo: Sujeet Rajan

JERSEY CITY, NJ – It was a sickeningly familiar scene.

People stood riveted, around a TV set, in cubicles and rooms in office buildings.  Outside, police cars and ambulances zig-zagged, wailed and screeched past in a tearing hurry. Left some pedestrians fascinated; rooted to their spot by the sheer number of law enforcement vehicles suddenly converging from different roads, headed zombie-fashion in the same direction. Like a dramatic road chase in a big budget film.

Groups of people huddled around cell phones near the Jersey City train station, umbrellas up, shielded from a drizzle. There was excited chatter, agitated gesticulations. Others just walked away, indifferent. Some worried if trains were running in New Jersey. Police cars halted outside the station. Policemen in battle gear uniforms, automatic weapons in hand, stood guard warily; reinforcing defensive positions. Overhead, a chopper whirred almost sluggishly through the gray, cloud-infested sky.

On Tuesday, December 10, 2019, as news spread through social media and broadcast stations of a shooting in progress in Jersey City – with a cop shot in the initial melee, in a neighborhood chock full of houses, schools, commercial establishments and shops, the state became almost paralyzed, waiting with bated breath for the body count to start, in an area across the Hudson river from lower Manhattan.

Rumors spread, vied to gain traction with fact-based reportage by broadcasters, and news websites. There was a bombardment of messages from WhatsApp groups.

Some claimed a group of men mowed down helpless people in a street close to the train station. Cable news reported many schools were in a lockdown, in different towns and counties. A widely circulated video emerged of a continuous barrage of gunfire, as if in a war zone or a town in the grip of vicious gang wars, with policemen taking cover behind cars, pointing guns at an invisible enemy. The thought that those shots could be emerging from the precincts of a school campus was too ghastly to brood upon.

Some reports deduced police were going from house to house, clearing neighborhoods. It seemed a vast stealth operation was in progress. A town caught in a vortex of uncertainty, unsure of how much of danger there was, or how close it lurked.

A couple of hundred meters away, on Newark Avenue, hub of Indian food and shops, life went on as usual, unperturbed. People chatted outside a paan shop. Bollywood songs wafted from TVs; people munched on dosas and chapatis in restaurants. Helpers carted boxes of items from trucks to grocery shops.

A few blocks away, on Summit Avenue, the streets were deserted. Shops closed. Police cars with sirens zoomed by. Dusk settled in early, with relentless rain.

The last time I was in the grip of something similar, was seven years ago, on December 14, 2012, in Connecticut. My wife and I were in a car dealership in a town a few miles away from Newtown, where evil visited, carnage took place, that day.

We were sitting nonchalantly, drinking a cup of tea, waiting for paperwork to be done for a new car we were buying that day. With our children away in school, we were planning where to have an early lunch. A TV in the lounge of the dealership suddenly flashed breaking news of a shooting, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown.

Soon, employees and visitors huddled silently around the TV set. Outside, on Route 7, police cars and ambulances screamed past as if the world was on fire. As horrific details came in of the ghastly shooting, body count of children rose, people cried in the room.

I became familiar with the drill of a town in America going into shock in the aftermath of an unexpected violent attack, when 9/11 happened. I was on the campus of American University, in Washington, DC, that day, visiting from New York City, when TV screens showed the Twin Towers coming down. The drill of agitation, within a room; panic outside on streets, followed.

For two days, I was stuck in Washington with no public transportation to go back home. I slept on campus, walked the streets in the mornings. When I got back, New York City seemed wasted, torn apart. It was surreal. Those were the days when America was shattered. People felt no shame crying in bars, hugging each other in streets, sitting forlornly on street corners.

Over the years, that surreal take has been replaced by the sickening notion of repetition. The feeling that depravity and evil snakes around daily, waiting for an opportunity, at every nook and corner.

That a shooting, and mayhem, could happen any time, any day. In a school, in a mall, in a theater, at a concert, in a bar, in a grocery store, in a university classroom, in a train, in a bus, at a wedding, at a party, in an office, at home.

I know one thing now, for sure.

Soon, there will be yet another day, when people will unexpectedly crowd around a TV screen. To follow each and every moment of news of the new normal in America: yet another shooting, mowing down of innocent people.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, News India Times. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)

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